Almost all of the food and beverage brands we know are owned by just 10 global conglomerates, according to a blistering new report.
Oxfam’s 52-page “Behind the Brands” report goes into great detail about how just ten companies — Associated British Foods (ABF), Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International (previously known as Kraft), Nestle, PepsiCo, and Unilever — own basically every brand of food sold in grocery stores around the globe. The report is part of Oxfam’s GROW campaign, which seeks to provide a sustainable food supply to an estimated global population of nine billion by 2050.
The “Behind the Brands” report grades each company through a series of scorecards, gauging how attentive it is toward core issues like how it treats farm workers, women, small-scale farmers, local land and water supplies, its climate change policy, and a company’s transparency. By and large, the scorecards found that the so-called “Big 10” food companies shirk their responsibility to local populations and the environment, falling far short of where they could be given their tremendous resources and influence. In some cases, Big 10 companies actually undermine food security, natural resources, and human rights, according to Oxfam:
• Companies are overly secretive about their agricultural supply chains, making claims of ‘sustainability’ and ‘social responsibility’ difficult to verify;
• None of the Big 10 have adequate policies to protect local communities from land and water grabs along their supply chains;
• Companies are not taking sufficient steps to curb massive agricultural greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate changes now affecting farmers;
• Most companies do not provide small-scale farmers with equal access to their supply chains and no company has made a commitment to ensure that small-scale producers are paid a fair price;
• Only a minority of the Big 10 are doing anything at all to address the exploitation of women small-scale farmers and workers in their supply chains.
In addition to those damning declarations from Oxfam, the report also found that despite the enormous financial wealth concentrated among the Big 10 companies (an estimated $872.8 billion market cap amongst all but Mars, which is privately owned), the farmers working the land owned by these companies live in abject poverty.
Globally, some 450 million men and women work in the agriculture sector, and 60 percent of those live in poverty. In a cruel ironic twist, 80 percent of the global population classified as “chronically hungry” are farmers. The “Behind the Brands” report outlined how the practices of the Big 10 companies exacerbate the global problem of chronic hunger:
“[T]he use of valuable agricultural resources for the production of snacks and sodas means less fertile land and clean water is available to grow nutritious food for local communities. And changing weather patterns due to greenhouse gas emissions – a large percentage of which come from agricultural production – continue to make these small-scale farmers increasingly vulnerable… [T]he sourcing of commodities – cocoa, sugar, potatoes, tomatoes, soy, coffee, tea and corn – is still plagued with injustice and inequity, much as it was 100 years ago.”
But these concerns aren’t just coming from one nonprofit — in conducting research for the report, Oxfam found that where food comes from and whether or not a food producer is being socially and environmentally responsible is a top concern for a wide majority consumers in developed countries. This could also produce economic blowback for companies that don’t adhere to sustainable business standards. Weber Shandwick — a New York-based public relations firm — found that 70 percent of American consumers avoid buying products from companies they don’t like.
Other countries are similarly concerned with the behavior of companies who produce their food. Oxfam cited a two-year study conducted among residents of all of China’s provinces, and found that approximately 75 percent of respondents actively avoiding buying products from companies that aren’t socially responsible. The chart below, citing 2012 data, found that six countries — Brazil, India, Spain, Philippines, the United Kingdom, and the United States — all either disagree or disagree strongly with the statement that they are not concerned about how the food they eat is produced:
As far as the scorecard for the Big 10 is concerned, none of the world’s largest food producers scored in the 8-10 (“good”) range on any of the criteria used for the evaluation. While Nestle and Unilever lead their competitors in several areas, they still fall short in how they treat the land, women, and small-scale farmers. The three worst offenders — General Mills, Kellogg’s and ABF — didn’t score above a 3 out of 10 score (“poor”) except for a scant few categories. And out of a maximum score of 70, Nestle, who ranked at #1 among the Big 10, still only scored 38 (only 54 percent). If the scorecard was a college exam, Nestle would still score an F.
Because the Big 10 companies control so much of the global food supply, and because transparency in the supply chain is so obfuscated that it’s difficult for the average consumer to follow who ultimately makes the food they eat, Oxfam’s solution is pushing these companies to be leaders in sustainability through increased awareness and the public pressure that leads to these companies wanting to do right strictly because it makes business sense.
Moreover, companies have a mandate from the United Nations, which established in 2011 that companies are must protect the human rights of laborers and citizens of the countries they depend on to source the raw materials for their goods. These new UN standards aren’t just pie-in-the-sky idealism either, according to Oxfam:
“Under the UN Principles, companies are required to undertake ‘due diligence’ to ensure that they do not violate human rights, and to address and mitigate any adverse impacts in any of their ‘activities or relationships,’ extending down their supply chains and across business and government partners. To meet these requirements, companies must put in place policies and processes to identify and manage human rights risks, engage with relevant suppliers, stakeholders and government bodies, and establish grievance mechanisms to redress any abuses. The UN Principles have found their way into multilateral standards, national laws, and investor agreements.”
Learn more about the Behind the Brands project and how to take action here.
Tom Cahill is a writer for US Uncut based in the Pacific Northwest. He specializes in coverage of political, economic, and environmental news. You can contact him via email at [email protected], or friend him on Facebook.